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Sarah Good - God's Wrath

england witch synod colonies

The most intense periods of witch hunting in Europe came when a country experienced a particularly stressful time such as civil war, famine, or spreading disease. Why the American colonies had only one large witch-hunt, occurring in Massachusetts in 1692, was most likely the result of extreme stress in the New England colonies.

The Puritans of New England, English Protestants who opposed the Church of England, believed they had been chosen by God to establish a holy land in the New World. Massachusetts governor John Winthrop (1588–1649) told his colony's residents that if they failed to establish communities of holy, reverent people they would feel the wrath or anger of God and be punished.

In the second half of the seventeenth century more and more residents moved away from a rural New England setting where the land was rocky and difficult to farm, and into Boston and surrounding areas where jobs in crafts and manufacturing were available. Many people in the newer urban areas had strayed from regular church attendance. Political disagreements involving the rule of England over the colonies dominated town meetings. Soon preachers called on the people to mend their ways and get back to godliness and disciplined lives or divine punishment would be coming.

Sure enough, in the 1670s, one catastrophe after another came to the New England area. War with the Indians called the King Philips War in 1675 and 1676 killed between six hundred and one thousand New Englanders and many towns were destroyed or damaged. Approximately three thousand Indians were killed, villages destroyed, and hundreds of captives sold into slavery to the West Indies. Matters only worsened as Boston experienced devastating fires in 1676 and 1679. Smallpox epidemics struck in 1677, 1678, and again in 1690. New Englanders looked for something to blame for their misfortunes. Anxiety and frustrations grew as the colonists feared they had indeed failed in their mission and were feeling God's anger.

In 1679 the Massachusetts General Court called for a general synod [meeting] of New England's clergy to consider what An accused witch going through the judgement trial, where she is dunked in water to prove her guilt of practicing witchcraft. (© Bettmann/Corbis)
was causing the terrible events of the 1670s. The synod cited God's displeasure with New Englanders for their immoral behavior, argumentative ways, love of worldly goods, interest in profits, and not working cooperatively with their neighbors. Another problem was belief in magic, with clergymen believing those who used potions and charms and held magic powers were displeasing an all-powerful God. Those who attempted to practice magic, they believed, were being tempted by the devil. The synod gatherings continued throughout the 1680s.


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